A pull from a recent espresso I drank at Karma Coffee, Sudbury, MA
A pull from a recent espresso I drank at Karma Coffee, Sudbury, MA
...not coffee ethics or history or sustainability or economics. Just put that to rest. The social, moral, and economic debate around coffee consumption and production, though vital and necessary to a complete understanding of the importance of the world's 2nd most valuable legally traded commodity, is beyond the scope of what I would like to discuss, which is something more fundamental to coffee consumption: consumer awareness.
I don't actually drink Starbucks coffee. But there are many sides to the Starbucks story. Some good, some bad. I'd like to talk about a minor part of one of the good sides.
I remember when most coffee sucked. Do you?
If you've read this blog you know I roast my own coffee, or go out of my way to drink coffee from places like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, Gimme! Coffee, Terroir, Rancho Aloha, Sweet Maria's, and my local roaster, Karma. I try to buy coffee that has been direct sourced (or "direct traded") as it goes beyond Fair Trade in offering an above c-market price to growers.
But I do not believe Starbucks sucks, at least not as much as I used to. In fact, every time I drink a Cup of Excellence coffee or enjoy beans from Sweet Maria's, I thank Starbucks. You see, indirectly (great example here) and directly, Starbucks dramatically grew consumer awareness of coffee that led to the availability of great beans in the US and beyond - from a multitude of sources, including Fair Trade and direct trade - great beans that, in their procurement, offer better prices to farmers and better quality to consumers.*
Notice I said "consumer awareness" not "coffee quality" or "cafe experience" - neither of those last two points would be entirely true, at least not for many urban areas of the US. Prior to the arrival of Starbucks on the national scene, there were indeed individuals around the country making their mark in specialty coffee - importing, roasting, wholesaling, retailing. But they were isolated and small and were, with the exception of some regional players, focused on local markets. Starbucks, as they plowed their way south and east and beyond, indoctrinated the nation - the entire nation - in the belief of the goodness of the $2 cup of coffee and taught people - at least superficially - what a great cup of coffee should be. They had pamphlets and whole roasted beans and an always changing roster of drip coffees (along with the ubiquitous espresso-based specialty drink, which outsold drip coffee significantly and still does, blech). They eased the consumer into the idea that there was more than just 'light' or 'dark' coffee (though all Starbucks coffee is, without doubt, dark) and conditioned the consumer to accept higher prices for quality cups.
Now bear with me again. I'm going to tell you a little about foodservice coffee, a world in which I worked from 2004 to early 2006. This is kind of boring and technical, but again, Starbucks needs to be recognized for the impact they had on foodservice. A very positive impact.
In foodservice - a world most consumers have little awareness though they participate in it almost daily at work, in restaurants, even at small cafes - big roasters like Sara Lee (Superior Coffee along with a host of other brands), Kraft (Maxwell House), and even distributor brands (Sysco, US Foodservice etc)) that previously dominated the coffee business, were forced to improve their game to compete with Starbucks for institutional, chain, and 'down the street' (independent) customers. In 2000 "gourmet" and "specialty coffee" was still a nice-to-have, not a must-have. By 2005 it was game over for those who chose not to enter the specialty coffee business. Starbucks, and, to a lesser extent many new regional roasters (spurred on by the increasing awareness and demand for high-end coffee), that had previously been inconsequential, were now both taking a bigger piece of the pie and growing the pie to accommodate more specialty players. While institutional roasters were consolidating (for example, in 2008, Sara Lee threw in the specialty coffee towel when they sold their delivery coffee business to Farmers Brothers, a large foodservice coffee distributor), the specialty coffee market, thanks to Starbucks, was growing and fragmenting. There was more opportunity for better quality roasters and less for the traditional players who didn't want to change with the times. Players like McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts had to change their game to stay competitive. Bring on the coffee wars.
And what else had changed? Students. Students who didn't use to care - they were too busy slurping down Coke and Pepsi and the like - suddenly wanted better coffee...and ethically sourced coffee at that. Students began to demand Fair Trade coffee thanks to efforts on college campuses - efforts that would have been meaningless had coffee consumption not increased among young people, a formerly stagnant and declining coffee demographic now on the increase thanks in large part to the ubiquity of the Starbucks presence (who, incidentally, were petitioned for many years by Fair Trade until they acquiesced and, somewhat reluctantly, added it to the menu).
(Just a small rant about Fair trade: Though I don't think Fair Trade goes far enough to improve the lives of farmers (their guaranteed price for coffee, about $.25 above C market prices, doesn't make enough of an impact on overall quality of life for farmers receiving the 'subsidy', though it is, of course, better than the C market price they would otherwise get), large institutional roasters had to add Fair Trade to hold on to business with universities.)
But enough of that. The point is that over the last 15 years, as Starbucks has made its march across the world, it brought some good as it scorched the earth and sowed salt into the land...sowing, perhaps, the seeds of its own eventual destruction.
*The fundamental issue of price control has not been resolved during the period of unprecedented growth in coffee consumption; pricing has, in fact, spiraled downward, leaving many farmers poorer than ever. Hence ethical purchasing and awareness of sourcing is more important than ever.
For an incredibly informative read about the state of the coffee industry today and how specialty coffee, which is now about 20% of the total coffee market, has both helped and hurt coffee farmers, check out this blog entry at Chemically Imbalanced. There's no easy solution to the problem of coffee farming and poverty and this story points out exactly why. This conference, which is summarized in the article, is trying to address some of the moral, ethical, and social issues around coffee production and consumption.